Today is the third Sunday of Easter, and yet our text is still stuck on that first Easter Sunday. Last week we had to jump around a bit because Jesus showed up at the disciple’s home and then came back again a week later. But notice that today’s text is from “that same day.” It is evening on Easter Sunday when “two of them” were going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We know nothing about these people, other than that one is named Cleopas and they seem to have been followers of Jesus. There were likely in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, and now they were heading back home. They may have been husband and wife, they may have been roommates. All we know for sure is that they were very aware of what happened that weekend to their leader, Jesus, and they were also very disappointed.
As they walk back to Emmaus, they are talking about the events that took place in Jerusalem when who shows up out of the blue? It’s Jesus. But they don’t know that it is Jesus because he apparently hides his identity from them. And the hidden Jesus essentially asks them, “What cha talking about?”
At first they say, “Duh, what else would we be talking about! They continue, “About Jesus of Nazareth…He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people…they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
I think that those are some of the saddest words, not only in the New Testament, but in the English language. “We had hoped…”
Past tense. That hope is now gone.
We had hoped that this time rehab would be able to make a difference. We had hoped that she would finish high school. We had hoped that this time he would be able to keep his job. We had hoped that this time the little stick would turn pink. We had hoped that she would get better. We had hoped that he would be a different kind of leader.
If you can’t sympathize with these two travelers on the way to Emmaus, then you’re simply not living. We all understand disappointment. We all know what it is like to have our hopes dashed against the rocks of reality.
These two walkers also knew that the story didn’t end there. They knew that some women found the tomb to be empty that morning, and some of the disciples were able to confirm that the tomb was empty. The women even claimed that an angel told them that Jesus had been risen from the dead.
But, really. Who believes those women? If we back up a few verses to verse 11, we find the disciples’ response, “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
That’s the nice way to put it. Some translations call it the “women’s idle talk.” The Greek word used there is “leros,” which is really a PG-13 word that can suggest that the women were delirious, or that what they spoke was bull hooey.
What’s Jesus doing here on the road to Emmaus? He could have just shown up like he did with the disciples locked in the Upper Room, but this is a teachable moment. So before he goes right into it, he needs to understand where these travelers are. What do they know, how much do they comprehend.
This is just good teaching. My daughter will start kindergarten next year, and this week we are going in for an assessment. They want to know if she can count, recognize letters, and remember basic facts. You can’t just start a 5-year-old off with advanced algebra, and you don’t need to start with the ABC’s if they can already read. If you want to be an effective teacher, you start by seeing how much someone already knows and you build upon that knowledge and you build upon their experiences, making frequent references back to what is already known.
Now notice what Jesus does. He doesn’t have to start at page one, teaching these men about God creating heaven and earth, the fall of humanity, and so on. But what he does is to go back to the texts that these men already knew and give them a new interpretation. And it isn’t as if he says, “Everything you ever thought you knew is wrong.” He simply points them in a different direction. We are told that he specifically went back to Moses and the Prophets to show how they spoke about the messiah and how the messiah had to suffer and die. In verse 27, “[Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
I called this sermon “7 Mile,” which is a reference to the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, as we learn in Luke 24:13, and also a reminder of a 2002 movie called “8 Mile.” 8 Mile is that story of a young man who grew up in a part of Detroit known as 8 Mile. This is an economically impoverished part of a city that has had a difficult couple of decades. 8 Mile is the roughest of the rough city of Detroit. Drugs, alcohol, single-parent and abusive families seem to be the norm.
Echoing the words of the travelers on the road to Emmaus, the people of 8 Mile had hoped that things would turn out differently.
But in 8 Mile, the lead actor, an aspiring rap artist played by one Marshall Mathers, uses his experiences to craft his music. As the movie nears its end, Mather’s character, who goes by the name “Rabbit,” enters a rap battle.
In this battle, Rabbit names the things in his life that have formed him into the person he is. He owns his experiences, his failures and his successes. The deadbeat dad, the alcoholic mom, the poverty, the neglect. All of these things have been preparing him for this one moment. For this one opportunity. And he can either run from it, or seize it. So he seizes it, and wins the battle.
I’m not endorsing this movie; it isn’t what I would call a “Christian movie.” But the story seems helpful. It was only when Rabbit took the time to look back at all of these formative experiences that he was able to see a bigger picture. And on the 7 Mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus invited the two travelers to reach back and see how all of the formative experiences of Israel have been pointing to something else. They have been pointing to him.
Let’s jump ahead a bit, in Luke 24:44, Jesus is talking to his disciples after our event on the road to Emmaus and he says, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
When Jewish people talk about the Law or Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, this is a way of referring to their Holy Scriptures. They didn’t just call them the Old Testament. So Jesus is saying that there are references to him throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Now look at John 5:39, where Jesus is having his own rap battle with the religious leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”
And in verse 46, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” Go back and dig through our Scriptures and you will find that they all point to Jesus.
I know that I can be pretty critical of the first followers of Jesus. The disciples spent three years with him and they never seem to get it. Other believers see him, hear him, and experience his ministry in person, and they don’t seem to get it either. And this is one of those times when I’m tempted to just say, “Duh.” As in, “Duh, of course Jesus had to suffer, die, and be raised again.”
But these scriptures are not always as straight forward as we would like them to be. Consider Isaiah 7:14, a verse that you are probably all familiar with: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Obviously, who is this passage talking about? This is Jesus! I know that, you know that. Do you know who didn’t know that? The Israelites. In fact, this passage referred to something and someone else altogether. In fact, if you read many of the prophesies that Jesus fulfills in the Gospels, especially the book of Matthew, you will find that Matthew seems to cherry pick a bit. He takes verses out of context, applying totally unrelated stories to the birth of Jesus.
But here is what Matthew and the other writers are saying: in the light of the resurrection, these stories, these prophesies, they now have a new purpose. They now have a new meaning.
One of the problems that we fall into when we look at the Bible toady, particularly what we call the Old Testament, is that we view it as a collection of unrelated stories. There’s the story of the Fall, the story of David and Goliath, the story of the Exile. But rather than looking at the Bible as a collection of independent stories, what if we read it as one story, where each book, each story, builds upon previous stories and previous books? And all of these stories and all of these books are pointing us to the central figure and event of Jesus breaking into the world! Yes, these stories have meanings of their own, just like the passage that I read from Isaiah had a meaning of its own. But when we read them all together, as one grand narrative, then we can see that they have one central purpose: to point to Jesus. Even some of the really bad things that happen in Scripture point us to Jesus.
Let’s go back to the movie 8 Mile again. I wouldn’t say that God caused the bad things that happened to Rabbit. God didn’t cause his father to leave or his mother to drink heavily. God didn’t cause his family to live in poverty. But all of these things pointed him in a direction that led up to the pinnacle of the movie. And you don’t see that if you look at each individual story. You have to look at the big picture to find new meaning in it all.
I don’t think God caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. I don’t think God caused the Israelites to worship the Golden Calf. But now in light of the resurrection of Jesus, we can see how God used those events to point to Jesus. Where humanity failed, Jesus was faithful.
So I wonder, how does the resurrection of Jesus make us rethink the events of our lives? Again, I’m not claiming that God caused bad things that happened in our lives, but that God can give them new meaning.
So you lost your job, or you recently went through a difficult divorce. On this side of things, can you ask how God might work through this? How might you be able to better minister to someone else? One of the most-respected recovery models out there is seen in organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, where recovering addicts are helped by other recovering addicts. Again, I’m not saying that God caused these things to happen. But how might God use them, use you, to point toward resurrection?
Notice that this is not the end of the story. We don’t stop with Jesus explaining how the Old Testament needs to understood through his life and death. As the travelers arrive at Emmaus, they encourage Jesus to stay with them as their guest. They offer hospitality to this stranger. Again, remember that they do not yet know who this person is.
They sit down together for a meal, which is an extreme act of welcome and acceptance. Jesus, the guest, offers a blessing upon the food, presents his traveling companions with some bread, and they finally see him for who he really is. And just like that, Jesus disappears.
Here I find one of my favorite verses in the Bible, right after “He stinketh.” Verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Notice that Jesus could teach them lessons, quote scripture and explain it to them at length. They probably had about a two-hour journey/conversation from Jerusalem to Emmaus where Jesus taught them many things. But they only really saw Jesus in a shared meal.
My friends, we have all experienced moments like these travelers when we say “We had hoped…” On this side of hope, we will experience disappointment. But with the help of others, even sitting down for a shared meal can become an eye-opening experience. How are these moments pointing us to Jesus? How can we know him better?